February 16, 2003

Peace in New York City

There are moments in history when a crack in time seems to open and swallow the known world: solid-seeming institutions, rotted from within, collapse or are discarded; settled beliefs are unsettled; old truths are discovered to be provisional; acts that were forbidden are permitted or even required; boundaries thought impassable are passed without comment; and outrageous and unreal events, seeming to belong more to comic books than to reality, flood in profusion from some portal of the future that no one was guarding or even watching.

Jonathan Schell,
"No More Unto the Breach"
Harper's magazine March 2003

The City of New York tried to suppress the peace demonstration, refusing to allow a permit for a march and limiting it to a "stationary event." So the stationary event turned out to cover practically the entire mid- to upper east side of Manhattan.

The city officials simply put their heads in the sand, refusing to accommodate the will of the people to demonstrate against the war and failing to make even the most basic logistical arrangements that they do routinely for any number of parades like the St. Patrick's Day Parade or the Puerto Rican Day Parade. As a result, they had a huge mess on their hands when the time came and hundreds of thousands of people came into the city without a space to accommodate them.

The event was supposed to take place in the vicinity of 50th and First Avenue. Approaching from the west side there were already masses of people surrounding the New York Public Library at 42nd and Fifth Avenue. It was virtually shoulder to shoulder all around the library. The stone steps on the front of the building, which are half a block long, were completely covered like seats in a crowded stadium.

Police had their barricades up to keep the crowds from spilling into the street, but all the sidewalks in the area were full of people, many with signs, many more with buttons, nearly all showing indications of involvement in the peace demonstration. The energy in the air was electric and the charge was massive.

People had gathered at various points in the area to proceed together to the ultimate destinations, "feeder groups" they were called. From 42nd and Fifth there were steady streams of people on the sidewalks up both sides of Fifth Avenue and heading east on both sides of 42nd Street in the general direction of First Avenue and 50th Street.

I slid into a stream moving north on the east side of Fifth and watched for a cross street that looked like a good route to the east side. In the upper 40s I started heading east, moving along in a stream of humanity. The City massively underestimated what they were dealing with. They had placed their barricades in preparation, but the people were like liquid sliding through every hole and pouring toward the east side. As their numbers increased, it felt like a flashflood.

As I moved along, or was moved along by the crowd, on one of the side streets toward Lexington, at one point there was a sudden confusion and disruption and suddenly there was a horse right behind me, its hoofs clomping on the pavement. I scooted sideways, compressing the crowd to my left to let through what was a line of several mounted police.

By the time I reached Lexington Avenue and 49th Street, a full three broad avenues from the destination, police had given up trying to keep people on the sidewalks. It just wasn't possible from sheer volume. The entire street had become a walkway jammed with people. Anyone trying to walk in the opposite direction from the flow toward the event would be pushed backwards by the onrush of people.

By this time any attempt at crowd control was no more than a faint prayer. On Lexington in the lower 40s, police were nowhere to be seen. Traffic had entirely stopped on this major downtown artery. On side streets people had just abandoned their cars in the middle of the street and walked away in many cases. In some cars people remained seated, talking on cell phones or just sitting waiting for the time they would be able to drive again some hours hence.

To everyone's great good fortune the crowd was benign, well-behaved, well-intentioned. It was festive, with a great outflowing of energy, camaraderie, solidarity. It's a feeling that must be experienced. It cannot be described. Many set out to attend these peace demonstrations out of an irresistible compulsion to take some action against the US slide into disaster, but what begins as a sense of duty transmutes into a feeling of exhilaration when you find yourself in a crowd of hundreds of thousands who feel as you do about the issue of war, and about the Bush regime in general.

These people are the invisible majority, who are ignored by the corporate propaganda machine. In the mass media they virtually do not exist. But in recent weeks the furious momentum of the movement has become impossible to entirely ignore, so it has begun to see some acknowledgment. The energy of this movement is awesome, in the pre-1980 sense of the word. It will not be suppressed. It will not be ignored. If the clique that is running the country thinks it's bad now when people are traveling hundreds of miles and standing outside all day in 20-degree weather, just wait till spring. If the administration continues to ignore the will of the people, we are going to see something that has never been seen before. Already we are seeing something previously unseen, but the momentum is enormous, and no doubt this day too will fade as greater events move beyond it.

At each succeeding demonstration the energy is more concentrated, the crowds more vast, the self-confidence greater. Every conceivable segment of the population is represented, and many of them draw attention to their specific constituency with signs like "American Psychotherapeutic Association for rational government." Every age group, every nationality is represented. Veterans, union members, education professionals all make their presence known.

The creativity exhibited in the signs is delightful. The hatred of the administration was expressed in thousands of ways. The rigid, cold murderousness of the Bush-Cheny-Rumsfeld machine meets its diametric opposite in the free, creative, humorous, life-affirming quality of the mainstream Americans who have come out to oppose them.

The sheer energy of this grassroots movement that is not centralized, not directed from above but merely a spontaneous expression of masses of people is an overwhelming spectacle.

Though the city outlawed a march, it became a march as the police tried to channel the flow of people toward the event. They blocked off the cross streets from Lexington eastward, so people had to walk uptown to get to a street they were allowed to use to cross over on. The police would tell people to walk up to 55th, and when they got there the police would send them farther north. The authorities kept pushing the crowd to higher-number streets and explained that as the crowd on First Avenue grew farther north they had to channel the crowd farther north.

Even though thousands upon thousands were kept from the site in this way, many had radios tuned to WBAI, which was broadcasting the event live, so in effect the entire crowd spreading across many blocks of the city could be present at the main event.

Though the crowd was festive and exuberant, the police were extremely tense. They knew they had been left unprepared by their misguided superiors and that there was no way they could control the masses of people. Fortunately it was a perfectly behaved, friendly crowd and people were having way too much fun to be belligerent. I did see one unseemly incident and it showed how badly equipped to deal with these new realities some police are.

As I approached the scene, a police truck had backed up to a corner where a young woman had been standing on a "Don't Walk" signal waving a flag. The woman looked relatively calm, but the cop on the truck looked very excited. He was flailing around and grabbing at her in an extremely aggressive manner. He grabbed the flag from her and she held her hands up flat in a gesture of nonresistance and indicated that she would get down. She wasn't trying to defy his authority. As she started to climb carefully down, a short, heavy cop below, who also was in a state of extreme agitation, started grabbing violently at her coat and pulling her downward. Naturally, she was not eager to land face first on the concrete so she said, "Take your hands off me, I'm getting down." This only spurred the cop to increase his assault. Fortunately she made it down without a horrible fall and the cops hauled her away.

It was a terrible display of abysmal crowd management, extremely unprofessional behavior of police who were obviously not in control of their own emotions. The size of the crowd was intimidating, of course, and if viewed as an enemy, could be quite frightening. That is apparently how these particular officers were experiencing the situation. But inciting violence when there is none, by physically assaulting a woman who was not in any way violent, they risked setting off violence that would have begun as righteous anger in response to unprovoked violence by a group of men against a single woman. Uniforms are not enough to nullify the instinctive reaction of protectiveness that many average people would have to men ganging up physically on a woman so unnecessarily. It was an overreaction and extremely dangerous under the circumstance. As it was, the crowd in the immediate area ignited in fury against the police. Everyone, including the police, were lucky a riot did not break out right there. Fortunately, most of the police were not belligerent as those were.

Continuing to walk up Lexington Avenue, a friend and I were finally were allowed to cross over to First Avenue at 73rd Street, over 20 blocks north of the bandstand. The crowd had by then piled up that far and people were still piling on at the end and still filling most of Second, Third and Lexington avenues.

We couldn't believe that we were finally getting to travel eastward. We had become used to walking north, away from the event. We thought we might reach Montreal before we were allowed to turn around. When we reached First Avenue, we started walking downtown. We were still far out of sight of the main stage. But at intervals video screens 15 or 20 feet wide were mounted on mobile platforms showing the events at the stage area.

We continued to walk, block after block in the crowd. There were groups of people with drums, an occasional real snare drum or conga drum, but much more often plastic jugs, canister lids and anything that would thump or clatter when hit. They were singing, chanting, churning up infectious rhythms. There was a continual parade of brilliantly humorous signs, fascinating costumes, vendors selling t-shirts and buttons.

By the time we got within a few blocks of the stage, after a seemingly interminable, hypnotic walk, the rally was over. The organizers complied to the letter with the limitations placed on them and announced to the crowd that the event is over, we must disburse, go peacefully. We will see you next time.

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